I'D HEARD the whispers before and, since Liam Jurrah's dramas of the past week, the whispers have grown louder - AFL clubs are starting to back away from recruiting indigenous players.
They're ''too hard'', it is said, ''too much trouble''. Recruiters are paid to deliver premierships, not racial harmony, the argument runs. Sponsors don't want their names associated with players breaking the law or offending community values.
Eddie McGuire, on his new show on Fox TV, made reference to the matter, although he put it in a larger context. He asked: ''Is it becoming too hard not only for indigenous players but also for other kids without formal education?'' He repeated the statistic that AFL players now have 15 contact hours of tuition a week - more, he claimed, than a commerce student at Melbourne University.
The AFL needs to act and it needs to act quickly. The game accrued a lot of moral authority during the 1990s and early 2000s by the lead it took in the area of indigenous relations, thereby cementing its status as the national game. Now we've entered another phase.
In my experience, when there are rising tensions between different groups, whether they be racial or religious, there is really only one remedy. Engagement. The alternative to engagement is a cycle of rumour and speculation that eventually finds expression through media types who mistake valuable opinion for saying the first thing that comes into their head, as opposed to arriving at a final judgment based on the best information available.
The AFL needs to get everyone together in a big room for what in international politics is called a summit. The clubs obviously need to be present - particularly as they now have so much power, the recruiters. But, no less, organisations such as AFL NT and AFL Central Australia also need to be represented.
The speakers should include former indigenous champions such as Andrew McLeod. McLeod addressed a forum of the United Nations in Geneva; he can address the AFL.
Past players such as the Marngrook Footy Show's Chris Johnson should be invited. If necessary, discussions should be held behind closed doors so that people can speak frankly, but the aim of thediscussions should be this - how do we work our way through this problem together?
There has been discussion recently over whether proposed changes to the interchange rule will disadvantage indigenous players. As with all proposed rule changes, the people whose views I'm most interested in are the players. But I also want to hear from the indigenous players.
Sydney's Adam Goodes is entitled to be seen as a major figure in the game. I want to hear what he thinks. I have heard Hawthorn's Shaun Burgoyne speak - in the quietest of ways, he was firm and utterly clear in his opinions. I want to know what he thinks.
McGuire's estimation of the game's trajectory and current whereabouts is, I believe, correct. It seems a sad but inevitable consequence of modern professional sport that the wealthier sports become, the more people are employed in specialist and coaching capacities and the more technical the games become.
It doesn't mean the games become any better or more enjoyable to watch. Indeed, I would argue the main thrust of all this applied thought to Australian football has been essentially negative. Basically, the changes of the past decade have amounted to borrowing tactics from other sports, notably soccer and basketball, that frustrate or block the passage of the ball from one end of the ground to the other. Compare that with the contribution of the person who came up with the idea of the high mark.
As the game becomes more about systems of play, more about programmed plays and cramming players' heads with information before the match, I always go back to a remark of Nathan Buckley's: ''Footy's like a tune. The indigenous players never forget it - the rest of us struggle to remember it at times.''
In terms of material wealth, footy's bigger than ever but those with a responsibility to the game would have to be drunk with power to forget for a single moment that our code is locked in a race to survive with soccer and the two rugby codes. If Melbourne Victory disappoints this season, it can recruit a couple of Brazilians for next year. If Melbourne Storm disappoints this season, it can go to New Zealand or scour the Pacific Islands for likely replacements.
In the Irish language there is a phrase, ''sinn fein'', which translates as ''ourselves alone'' - that is the position of Australian football. We have no ready supply of players outside these shores. Furthermore, when I went to school, everyone played sport and everyone played football and cricket. Now only those who are good at sport play sport and footy has to compete with a smorgasbord of activities for their affections.
Can anyone seriously suggest Australian football would have been a better, more enjoyable game without the talents of Farmer, Jackson, Rioli, the Krakouer brothers, Long, McLeod, Wanganeen etc? Yes, relations across the cultural divide at the heart of this country are hard, but every weekend coaches demand what is hard from players. It's time for those running the game to step up.
The argument can be summarised simply. In 2012, the face of the game is an indigenous player, Hawthorn's Buddy Franklin. Richmond passed him up in the draft because they thought he was trouble.
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